Narratives and False Narratives

“Kind hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.” -Carl Von Clausewitz, On War

Micah Zenko, a distinguished scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations wrote and tweeted, about the demise of Qaddafi as being an apt conclusion to a false narrative. Considering the nature of today’s conflicts and more importantly the way they have to be marketed to the public it’s hardly a surprise that this double-dealing is becoming the norm. While it’s easy to take the liberal/egalitarian approach to slam the powers that be for this deception (not that I’m accusing Zenko of doing such); is it really that simple? Can society honestly deny that a level of willful ignorance is at play here?

The first Gulf War was, by all accounts a historical anomaly, the sort of event that could only have occurred in those exact circumstances and with those exact objectives. Yet it seems that this highly improbable confluence of events has defined the public’s perception of warfare in the post-Cold War era. In this age of liberal, humanitarian idealism, warfare must be conducted within the context of what educated, morally virtuous societies are prepared to accept. They must be swift, decisive, and the first priority must be to render the opposing armed force incapable of waging war; while actually ending as few lives as possible. Essentially society expects the opposing military be castrated, rather than annihilated. Because after all, to the educated lay person, of sound moral mind but lacking any understanding of the depth of depravity that has throughout history been fundamental to the conduct of warfare; death and destruction should be limited as much as possible. The first Gulf War was a master stroke, society was fed a steady diet of video and photographic evidence that America’s technologically superior military forces hadn’t really killed people so much as they’d destroyed hundreds of cars, trucks, tanks, aircraft, guns, and buildings. Focusing almost entirely on inanimate objects, the tools that made evil acts possible, society believed that by removing the means we could remove the will to kill and destroy. News media showed thousands of clips and photos of destroyed equipment but comparatively little in the way of charred, mutilated corpses, the human element required to make use of such tools for evil purposes. Instead what was shown was droves of surrendering soldiers, surrendering en masse, as though contrite and seeking to repent; a narrative that fit perfectly with the Jewdeo-Christian values of liberal democratic societies in the west.

Politically speaking it was a near perfect war. In all the hubbub about why it was right or wrong, from a strategic/political/social perspective the reason why this conflict was effective and politically expedient lies primarily with the limited aims. By adhering to the Powell Doctrine, America kept her aims limited, she didn’t get lured into all out invasion of Iraq, which would have escalated the conflict from one of limited aims towards one of more total aims. Wars fought for more total objectives have throughout history been far more arduous, costly, bloody, and unseemly. Because the ultimate aim is not just to force a minor concession from ones opponent, but to remove the opponent and his sovereign political regime, said power must be prepared for a potentially long, ugly fight in which tough decisions are made, many lives are lost and the full gruesome nature of war is exposed to the world.

From the American perspective this can best be summarized by looking at the three prominent wars of the century. The First World War, perhaps the first of the industrial level total wars, exposed the world to the concept of trench warfare and the massed wave infantry assaults against fixed defensive positions that made use of barbed wire and machine guns resulting in mind numbing casualty statistics.

The Second World War saw a greater emphasis on targeting the enemy’s industrial means, seeking to remove the adversaries means of waging war on a total scale. As a result we saw the dawn of ‘strategic’ bombing, targeting mainly civilian/industrial communities, non-combatants who were deemed complicit in the conduct of the war and thus targeted for massive bombing campaigns that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. However both of these events took place in a time when the ability of mass media to expose societies to the level of death and destruction was comparatively small, and also easily manipulated for propaganda purposes.

However as America went to war in Vietnam it was forced for the first time to confront the inescapable presence of the cameras, capable of providing the world with a front row seat to the sort of horror and violence that defined the conflict. The power of video, capable of being broadcast straight into the homes of millions around the world would redefine the way politicians treated the use of force, the jarring effect of this is plain to see. As its said a picture, and even a video may tell a thousand words; but yet it can give the viewer no context what so ever. Thus forcing the viewer to process this new stimuli according to their own values, morality, and prejudices. Violent action thus became disconnected with its contextual meaning within the sphere and conduct of warfare. Because of this a schism occurred, between violence and it’s required contextual understanding. An understanding that war is a separate sphere of the human experience; one that cannot be viewed in the same vein as the rest of everyday interactions present in liberal/western societies.

South Vietnamese general executes the murderer of his family. An image that without context influenced American public perception of the war. Also, perversly the first image one finds when Googling 'South Vietnamese General'.

The further we’ve progressed from that period, the more liberal, the more morally self-assured we’ve become; the wider this gulf between the violence and destruction of war, and its contextual meaning has become. The first Gulf War changed the game once again, deluding society into believing that military forces of such awe-inspiring strength and size can be unleashed with hyper-precision. That these 21st century armed forces, those of liberal, western states can neutralize the ability of an adversary to create violent destruction, and that all this can be done without actually creating more violence and destruction.

If this is the case, if liberal societies can no longer appreciate the intrinsically violent nature of warfare, yet constantly demand their governments undertake military action for political, ethical, moral or judicial reasons; how then can these governments achieve the successful political ends? These very ends that are desired by their own societies/electorates, while staying within the unrealistic restraints placed upon them by the morality of those very same societies/electorates. When a vocal majority or even minority of the people and parliamentary establishment demand a leader take military action, that leader (according to the conventional rules governing liberal democratic societies) must then authorize and orchestrate a military campaign to achieve the desired results of his electorate. But when the means to achieve this end state require a greater acceptance of war’s violent nature; when they fail to appreciate the fact that in order for success to be achieved acts of violence must be committed, acts that may not sit well with the electorate. Where then does the culpability lie?

Thus far the culpability has gone to the leader, who after seeking the necessary means to achieve the desired results, demanded by his/her electorate will forever be held to blame for breaching the moral code that society aspires to maintain as it’s standard. These leaders can ultimately be condemned both for failing to uphold their society’s moral code, and for failing to take the decisive actions, the actions that would give the electorate the successful conclusion they wanted. Lyndon Johnson should be viewed as the perfect example of this, he managed to both breach societies moral code by taking actions deemed to violent and/or destructive, while at the same time compromising, declining the strategically prudent course of action. Instead taking actions that were in effect half measures, incapable of assuring decisive results or providing the successful end demanded by the electorate.

These inherent contradictions created what can only be viewed as a political Catch-22, where the strictly rational necessities for success in battle, an acceptance of levels of violence and destruction deemed unacceptable under the norms of liberal democratic society; are at an impasse with the political necessities of internal and external state politics. The Battle of Tora Bora succinctly expressed this inherent contradiction. In the weeks after 9/11 America knew who was responsible, and exactly where to find them. If viewed rationally in the context of battlefield necessities the obvious response would be to use American soldiers and airpower to fight a potentially ugly attritional battle with Al Qaeda, it would have meant putting many American soldiers in harm’s way, understanding that some American lives would be lost but through determination and technological superiority victory would likely have ensued in fairly short order. However, the political powers at be in Washington felt that this course would have adverse internal, and external political effects. The compromise course that was charted utilized a small number of covert American military personnel, American air power, and most importantly significant reliance, on clearly unreliable, partners. The end result was an operation that failed to achieve its military or political goals, damaged the administration and drove the country into a near decade long pursuit of its query. A pursuit that ultimately required far more sacrifice and questioning, perhaps even compromise of American moral convictions than would ever have been demanded if rationalist best practices had been adhered too at the beginning of hostilities. Also, because of the time lapsed in between, significant political leverage was lost, resulting in an ultimate conclusion with greater political backlash than might have been created with the leverage of expedient action.

How then are leaders of liberal democratic powers to provide the results demanded of them by their electorates? Whilst also maintaining the pretext of upholding the moral ethos of their state; when that ethos is incompatible with the means required to achieve the demanded result. The most obvious alternative is to create competing narratives, one that allows for the proper use of force to achieve the desired result, and another more propagandist narrative that adheres strictly to the ethical code of conduct by which the government is held accountable by its people. It worked out pretty well in World War II when American bombers practiced “precision” bombing campaigns, a campaign that could only be precise under the loosest of definitions. As well as during the Surge in Iraq, the ‘false’ narrative being that by putting in thousands of extra soldiers with the objective of securing the populations support, through development and assistance, not killing, resulted in a more stable Iraq. The actual narrative would point out that what really altered the situation on the ground was what could arguably be described as a limited campaign of ethnic cleansing; where by one portion of the Iraq populace was permitted to wipe out the militant factions of another. This actual narrative however runs afoul of America’s liberal moral values. Perhaps, because of the nationality of those being killed and the amount of sacrifice already thrust upon the American forces this moral failure isn’t worth condemnation. Whether or not this is the case, the fact is that counter narratives allowed the military mission to be accomplished by means deemed necessary by the battlefield commanders, while also subourning or perhaps paying lip service to America’s moral and ethical values.

This use of false narratives, depending on how stringently you wish to define them could be applied beyond just America. Over the last four years the fact that military action in Afghanistan is indeed bloody and destructive, has exposed the false narrative of some NATO member states, a narrative focused on peacekeeping and development. These governments attempted to pander to public animosity towards the use of violence, but exposure of the double narrative, in some cases weakened or brought down the government in power.

While the degree to which these false narratives are miss leading or in and of themselves immoral, it’s important we look critically at what blame should be allotted and where. If societies moral ethos has reached a point whereby the successful prosecution of a war cannot be conductive entirely above-board, as it were. Shouldn’t society be held more accountable? Should it not acknowledge the existence of this double standard and weigh the merits of whether it’s desire for victory and the demanded results to be achieved whilst also accepting the burden of what achieving those ends will cost, both physically and also ethically? Or perhaps, before war is declared should leaders stand before their electorates and explain to them the costs of the ugly, brutal business that is war?


3 thoughts on “Narratives and False Narratives

    • If there is an academically vetted definition I’m not aware of it. The definition I was going on is any actual narrative that runs counter to, or apart from, the narrative that initiated the course of action.

  1. The Clausewitz quote was jarring. I just read Sun Tzu, and his entire philosophy is based on quick wars and winning without bloodshed. I need to read Clausewitz to compare the two approaches.

    But more to the point: i’ve been thinking about the necessity of war and the need for transparency. People now have more mass media access to war footage since the Vietnam war, but are they truly getting a full picture? Does their liberal humanity get in the way of confronting reality, or provide a check on the abuse of power? I’m not so sure of either reasoning anymore.

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